Monday, December 26, 2005

Movie Review

Pride & Prejudice and Oliver Twist: Real/Ideal

Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice

The literary historian who identifies fiction with the novel is greatly embarrassed by the length of time that the world managed to get along without the novel, and until he reaches his great deliverance in Defoe, his perspective is intolerably cramped…. [T]he word novel, which up to about 1900 was still the name of a more or less recognizable form, has since expanded into a catchall term which can be applied to practically any prose book that is not "on" something.

--Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (1957)
The audience for this latest adaptation of Jane Austen's 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice will probably find it with or without reviews, and enjoy it irrespective of its quality. So it feels almost irrelevant to say that it's very good, much better than the trailers led me to expect. The 1940 MGM version starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier as the mutually antagonizing lovers Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy was based on a stage adaptation; this one was adapted directly from the book by Deborah Moggach and directed by Joe Wright with as much feel for what it means to be a novel as any adaptation of one I can think of.

In distinguishing the novel from prose romance generally, Northrop Frye wrote that the novel's "chief interest is in human character as it manifests itself in society." The novelist focuses on individual experience, giving herself as much direct access to the characters' thoughts and feelings as suits her purpose. At the same time, however, she sets the individual within concentric and overlapping circles that circumscribe family and household, community and fellow countrymen, co-religionists, members of the same sex, all of which we expect to be described believably. In this way the novelist simultaneously creates subjective and objective worlds that must feel as if they were being recreated from real-life models rather than dreamed up.

The objective world of the novel, i.e., the setting, also functions as a stage for a drama that derives from the defining attributes of the characters. And somehow, paradoxically, if the characters are convincingly, and engagingly, individual enough, all humanity may identify with them. That is, we recognize in the characters' defining attributes aspects of our own personalities and project ourselves into the resulting drama, which may be no more than to point out the kernel of allegory at the core of naturalistic character development. As applied to Austen's novel, you may recognize Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth as Pride and Prejudice personified and still feel that you know, or "are," in whole or in part, either or both of them.

Apart from voice-over, a movie can't replicate novelistic narration, certainly not within a comfortable stretch of theater-sitting time. A movie version of Pride and Prejudice is thus limited to what can be shown or spoken aloud. Fortunately, as the 1940 version shows, Austen's plot is a sturdy romantic comedy that can be staged on sets. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five daughters to marry off, in descending order of age if they're to do it properly. (Marrying the younger girls first might cause comment that would lessen the older girls' chances of marrying at all.) The Bennets do not have any income to settle on the girls, however, and even the house they live in will pass on Mr. Bennet's death to a cousin. Mr. Darcy, a wealthy young man with noble connections who is visiting in the neighborhood, falls for Elizabeth although he sharply feels the inferiority of her social rank. He's both aloof and utterly candid, a combination that means he's not falsely ingratiating, but that also causes him to wound Elizabeth's feelings in the very act of proposing to her. For her part, Elizabeth is likewise drawn to Mr. Darcy but believes a slander against him because his extreme stiffness makes the lies of the attractive blackguard Wickham appear probable. In the final act Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy recover from the missteps caused by the character defects that give the book its title.

Thus, Pride and Prejudice can be cut down for the stage and played for high comedy. Wright, however, grounds Austen's work in the tradition of English naturalism that she inherited from Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Fanny Burney, and developed contemporaneously with Walter Scott. First of all, starting at the wider end of the scale, Wright takes deliberate care with the country-life setting. We see in passing the livestock and poultry on all sides and under foot, as well as the working of the land and the keeping of the house. A constant industry surrounds the central action, which takes place in a living countryside. (You are kept aware as subtly as possible that the plot involves possession of the means of survival.) Wright expands the scope of Austen's observation, and he does it without sacrificing theatrical compression. (This is perhaps the most respectable form of commercial genius in the movies.)

On the more intimate end of the scale, Wright directs his actors to be especially alert to the other characters' signals, and he swiftly cuts to the telling details. Austen's society is extremely formal; language is spoken nearly in code and at times the characters have to decipher what's said to them and manage a response in a short enough time to conceal any immoderate reactions they may be having. Decorum is a constant challenge, and you can see here how it keeps the eyes darting for information and the brain whirring for verbal resources. Wright constantly makes us aware that the characters are reading each other, and framing their replies. The glances, and hand gestures, are as pointed and meaningful and yet as understated as in any movie.

Finally, Wright has developed a cumulative technique to get the big picture and the insets all at once. Best of all are the sequences (such as the opening at the Bennets' home and later at two dances) in which the roaming camera, with seemingly unbounded peripheral vision, gives us an unusually rich sense of simultaneity. For the most part Wright's technique couldn't be called flashy, but it revives senses dulled by years of depressingly unimaginative literary projects. This is a knife-sharpener's adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

In 127 minutes Wright gets in as much as he grasps of Austen's specificity and compass, rightly assuming that, of the two, specificity is more essential to a novel. He understands perfectly, for instance, what a problem it is for the oldest Bennet girls, Jane and Elizabeth, that their father is weak-willed, their mother too clumsily obvious in parading them before eligible bachelors, and their younger sisters disastrously silly. In Austen the charge that a girl's family poses an impediment to marrying her is valid, and unanswerable—it isn't Elizabeth's fault, but she can't deny it's a source of chagrin, "hopeless of remedy." It is not only snobbery that would make men with great fortunes hesitate to ally themselves with careless parents like the Bennets. Their sensible oldest daughters seem to have educated themselves, and that leads to problems of its own.

Elizabeth has brains and wit to spare; the problem is that she needs to spare a measure of the wit, and she's too young and inexperienced—and self-willed—to know how much and when. As her friend Charlotte says to her at the first ball, when Elizabeth falls in love her tongue is going to get her in trouble. As we then see, she falls into a trap precisely because she's so damned clever. It is not the case that Elizabeth, lacking proper guidance at home, happens to err in taking Wickham's part against Darcy, but that her overreliance on wit makes her likely to make such a mistake—to judge a man's character by how pleasing his manners are.

Thus, although "prejudice" is Elizabeth's error with respect to the slander against Darcy, it isn't her underlying flaw, which is a superficial habit of mind, a mind that follows her tongue. Elizabeth's mind is so self-governing that she borders on being morally light, a tendency that must be corrected by experience; the lesson is driven home by the near loss of Mr. Darcy's regard once she has come to realize its true worth. (As Elizabeth says to herself in the novel after reading Darcy's letter about Wickham, "I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either [of the men] were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.") At least she's amenable to correction, and the more impressive in that she herself has to apply it in the absence of appropriate parental authority. Elizabeth is her own governess, for better and worse, and then for much better.

To give us so much of Austen's Elizabeth, Wright and Moggach reduce Mr. Darcy to a supporting character. It's less of a loss than the reverse would be; Darcy's side of the allegory—that pride in rank is a flaw—is easier to demonstrate (certainly to modern audiences). Matthew MacFadyen is very good as Darcy, hemmed in without being unattractive, strong and generous entirely within the terms appropriate to his station. In Austen's eyes, a Mr. Darcy provides foundational strength for the whole community. Wright respects this as Austen's vision, but by lessening Mr. Darcy's importance to the movie he also makes the more appetizing choice to modern female moviegoers of building up the heroine. This doesn't eliminate the social views we no longer live by, or would care to. (This is not a work of shallow nostalgia.) And the movie preserves the contradiction right at the heart of the book: as a reward for growing up, the middle-class heroine deserves no less than the man of the greatest consequence and largest income in the book. But that's the full extent of Austen's romantic fantasy, which comes couched entirely in social and psychological naturalism.

The shift of weight almost entirely onto Elizabeth also shifts the movie onto Keira Knightley's slender shoulders. For me, the biggest surprise of all was her performance: she carries the movie with her reed-like uprightness and poise. It's a surprise because she had struck me as downright amateurish in Bend It Like Beckham (2002). But though she's as doe-eyed as Winona Ryder, she has a dramatic intelligence and an astuteness with dialogue that no American actress her age (20) can match. Knightley makes the qualities of Elizabeth's mind visible to the naked eye: her interest in, and amusement at, what's going on around her well up and gather in her luminous face. But there's more than a vivid-minded comeliness here: Elizabeth is as articulate, and nearly as contentious, a heroine as Shakespeare's Beatrice, and Knightley is as well-suited for the role as any actress believably just entering the marriage market. And not only does Knightley have the delivery necessary for the high comedy, she also displays the sense of awe necessary to mime what it means to realize you are not as worthy of the thing you want as you have always assumed.

A few minor objections: in the early scenes Kitty and Lydia are so antically in character I was wishing for a giant flyswatter. Knightley also has a tendency to lift her upper lip and wrinkle her nose in a way that is just too cute. She overcomes this bad habit, whereas Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennett seems to have nothing left as an actor but the habit itself. He's not a joke (as he was when "choking back tears" in a BBC interview, in which he compared NBC's editing of Kanye West's comment about President Bush during a Hurricane Katrina relief telethon to book-burning in Nazi Germany), but he is unpardonably boring. Judi Dench as Lady Catherine makes that great comic Gorgon steely and flat without making her funny. I had no idea what kind of high drama Dench thought she was reaching for. And Wright goes in for a few "arty" touches that he doesn't have the moviemaking flair for—when, for instance, the other dancers in a ballroom disappear leaving an angry Elizabeth and a bewildered Darcy dancing alone.

More significantly, the movie almost helplessly emphasizes personality over Austen's more encompassing vision of the harmonic utility of the social arrangements she depicts. She's not a snob but she believes that a hierarchical, landed society provides the most, and deepest, contentment for the most people. If a movie doesn't get this out of Austen then it's cruising below the highest attainable altitude. It was this aspect of Emma that walloped me in Ralph Rader's 18th-century novel class at UC Berkeley; after his last lecture I had to run to a phone and tell somebody about it. (My most concerted attempt to live up to Rader's teaching can be found toward the end of my chapter about Clueless (1995), Amy Heckerling's spectacularly pleasurable modernization of Emma, in my new book.) I don't think Wright's Pride & Prejudice can widen your opinion of Austen, as Rader's lectures did mine. The worst I can say on this basis, however, is merely that the movie isn't everything it possibly could have been, given its source. All the same, this Pride & Prejudice has an enormously satisfying emotional payoff on the personal level, which is almost beyond hoping for at the movies.

This 31 July 2005 Times Online article includes interesting information about what Wright and Moggach felt they were doing with the movie. Wright, for example, says he was stunned to discover that Austen was "one of the first British realists," and keyed the movie to this "discovery." When I repeated this to Maria DiBattista, my thesis advisor, she looked at me blankly and said, "What other possibility is there?" Wright's self-confessed ignorance of literary history is thus doubly shocking, considering how insightfully he has brought Austen to the screen.

Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist

The novelist deals with personality, with characters wearing their … social masks. He needs the framework of a stable society, and many of our best novelists have been conventional to the verge of fussiness. The romancer deals with individuality, with characters in vacuo idealized by revery, and, however conservative he may be, something nihilistic and untamable is likely to keep breaking out of his pages.

--Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism
In contrast to Wright's Pride & Prejudice, Roman Polanski's recent adaptation of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist is an example of attention to naturalistic details where they are least to the point. Polanski approaches the book as if it were a novel and it simply isn't, in any but a superficial sense. The extremes of fiendish darkness and seraphic light, the coincidences and miraculous deliverances, the grotesque humor, the realization that the author has worked out an ingenious demonstration of abstract beliefs, all tell you it's a romance. Readers may be misled by the protest against early 19th-century institutions such as the workhouse in the early portions of the book, and by the graphic depiction of the slumscape once the little hero gets to London. The pitfall of a criminal life was real enough for a poor boy, then as now, but Oliver isn't a naturalistic character, described from the inside out, and capable of further development, as Elizabeth Bennet is, or even as Dickens's own Dick Swiveller in The Old Curiosity Shop and Eugene Wrayburn in Our Mutual Friend are. (Dickens transforms both these men from allegorical vices into plausible young heroes in the course of those books.)

Little Oliver is an allegorical figure, the infant Christian soul, born complete and impervious to degradation, no matter what circumstances it finds itself in. (He's like the kids in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, who don't have to be taught that the holiday isn't about presents, they just feel it naturally and emerge from their burgled houses singing.) Oliver can be forced into crime, but he is proof against corruption. When Bill Sikes does force him, Oliver sinks to his knees and cries, "Oh! pray have mercy on me, and do not make me steal. For the love of all the bright Angels that rest in Heaven, have mercy upon me!"

The anti-Semitism in the depiction of Fagin the Jew, the fence who trains homeless children to pick pockets, makes sense only in this schema. If Oliver is the inherently innocent Christian soul, Fagin is a Jew as that term is meant—by the simultaneous operation of rank prejudice and simple logic—to show that Oliver can withstand the ultimate trial. To triumph in terms that bring out the full nature of this personification, then, Oliver not only has to resist Fagin but forgive him—when Oliver visits Fagin in prison the night before his hanging he begs "the Jew" to kneel and pray with him. Dickens, a survivor of the cracks that unmoneyed children can fall through, was, as an author, a resiliently optimistic Christian. The world could be harsh and even malevolent, but the universe was benign, and good men, i.e., true Christians, absolutely had the power to foil the machinations of evil men. To Dickens, Fagin is not evil because he's Jewish; we read of "venerable men of [Fagin's] own persuasion" who come to pray with him in prison and whom he drives away with curses. That is, Dickens didn't first decide to make Fagin Jewish and then as a necessary consequence make him evil. Dickens makes Fagin Jewish because the corrupter of children must be the opposite of good, which he always casts in Christian terms.

Thus, Oliver is at the center of a melodramatic romance about the perils of existence, conceived not just as a day-to-day struggle but as the grand struggle, for the life of the soul. Oliver is not a likely little boy of his age or condition of any era; Fagin himself notes that Oliver "was not like other boys in the same circumstances." He's the embodiment of Dickens's hope that there is something inborn in humans that enables them to rise above the real social problems he saw around him and that he describes more than realistically, with thunderstruck, nightmarish emphasis. Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas, the Native Son of the ghettos that African-Americans were penned in, is also an allegorical figure, but since he serves as a warning of the depravity that his condition can lead to, he's a far more plausible figure than Oliver who represents a profession of faith on Dickens's part. Oliver Twist is a devout fantasy that blooms straight from the seedbed of allegory.

Polanski takes a story that is in essence a stark series of tableaux, featuring assorted virtues and vices in silhouette, so to speak, and gives it the naturalistic treatment—my boyfriend pointed out that he'd never noticed horse turds in the street in a period movie before. But that doesn't add nearly as much as Polanski seems to think because he's on auto-pilot with respect to the allegory. For instance, he gives Oliver a working-class accent, which defeats the greater point—Oliver's unlikely perfect speech in the book doesn't just foreshadow the class he properly belongs to but announces his essential worth.

Another problem is that the script (by playwright Ronald Harwood) is an even more slenderized version of the story than in Carol Reed's musical adaptation Oliver! (1968). Cutting back on the characters and subplots at least makes sense if you want to make room for musical numbers. And while the music-hall turns of Ron Moody as Fagin, Shani Wallis as Nancy, and Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger alter and soften the material (song-belters being friendlier companions than fences and whores and thieves), they also serve the material by bringing out the high artifice and energy in Dickens's style of characterization. Working with a skeletal plot, Polanski doesn't give us an Oliver Twist that is meaningfully truer to Dickens or truer to life, but one that plays like a version of Oliver! with all the songs cut out and nothing put in their place.

Nor does Polanski's naturalism recommend itself on its own terms. At one point Oliver is running from the police (though he's done nothing wrong) and is stopped with a blow to the mouth by a "great lubberly fellow." In the book the fellow touches his hat with a grin, "expecting something for his pains" while in the movie he sticks his hand out level, palm up, to receive a coin. This is just crude, but not in the way Dickens was, i.e., with much sharper irony. Polanski's Oliver Twist seeks to be as naturalistic as an illustration out of Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor and fails, but also lacks the stylization to put the allegory over with the theatrical punch Dickens brought to it. In this way Polanski falls far short of David Lean's 1948 version, which catches the book's shadowplay intensities perfectly. And because Lean understands it's not a "difficult" story he manages to get through more of the plot at a faster clip than Polanski, whisking you from one peak to another and another.

Altogether, the book is a bad fit for Polanski. Unlike Oliver, Polanski is a Jew, who as a terrorized child survived the Nazi Holocaust (both his parents were deported to concentration camps where his mother died). Then as a young man and budding artist he survived the Communist domination of his homeland. (Later, already an international celebrity, he survived the butchering of his wife and unborn son in the Manson Family killings in 1969.) Knife in the Water (1962), his first feature, was made in the state-controlled Polish film industry and shows that Polanski knows how to spin a romance, a bleak one. In the movie a handsome young hitchhiker stops the car of a successful journalist and his younger wife by stepping into the middle of the road. The couple is on their way to the marina for a weekend of sailing, and though annoyed with the hitchhiker they invite him to come along. On the boat the older man is the captain, of course, but he also keeps trying to prove, with increasing sadism, that he's more of a man than the hitchhiker, who can't swim. The wife senses something more responsive in the young man but is not free to express a preference. The gamesmanship escalates until the hitchhiker is pitched overboard, but the kid has some tricks of his own it turns out.

Polanski shoots this pessimistic tale in a silvery-velvety black-and-white, and brings to it an unusually knowing attitude, especially since its appeal is essentially adolescent. (The young man remains nameless, a fill-in-the-blank for us to identify with in the games the older man keeps rigging on his own turf.) Knife in the Water suggests that the older generation of morally adaptable survivors provides the only possible role model for a young man, if he plans to function to any degree in that authoritarian society. A young man will either become like his corrupt elders, and presumably get a trophy woman of his own, or drown. The best he can hope for is to beat the tough older men at their own game, but that's still losing. To Polanski, surviving in such a society, in such a world, is not the same as winning, and you get this feeling from his movies even after he left Poland--Rosemary's Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974), Death and the Maiden (1994), and The Pianist (2002), for instance.

Despite Dickens's optimism, Polanski isn't any sunshinier filming Oliver Twist, and the maddening thing is not just that we hardly need another movie adaptation of it (it's toward the bottom of Dickens's accomplishments and has been filmed umpteen times), but that there are other Dickens books that haven't been given the major movie treatment that would better suit Polanski's temperament. Barnaby Rudge, for instance, with its startlingly cinematic depiction of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, would have been a far more logical follow-up to The Pianist than Oliver Twist, especially given the anti-Semitism at the heart of the allegory in the latter, which Polanski can't redeem or shoot straight, but merely covers up. And Our Mutual Friend has many darker characters and a more disturbingly uncanny landscape, including a Thames so full of dead bodies it spawns a minor industry of recovering them, a mound of garbage believed to contain a fortune, and a taxidermist's and bone-articulator's shop where a man goes to inquire after his own amputated leg.

Technically, we didn't need another version of Pride and Prejudice, either, but when the makers understand the spirit of the book and its means as well as Joe Wright, Deborah Moggach, and the lead actors do, you may find yourself not only reawakened to the treasurable qualities of Austen's novel but to the appeal of literary adaptations generally. It's axiomatic that the adapters of a book can't do a creditable job if they don't understand what kind of book they're adapting. People equate fiction with the novel and we end up with far more misfires like Polanski's Oliver Twist than works that honor and even extend the author's intentions as Wright's Pride & Prejudice does so admirably.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Movie Review

Capote and Walk the Line: Two Kinds of Bad Boy


In November 1959 Truman Capote spotted a brief New York Times item about the grisly murder of the Clutter family in their farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas. Capote got New Yorker editor William Shawn to hire him to cover the story and went out to investigate with his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee. (Lee had not yet published To Kill a Mockingbird, which includes a portrait of Capote as a child in the character Dill.) Capote saw so much potential in the Clutter murders for him as a writer he felt his report wouldn't fit in a magazine article; he spent the next six years turning it into the bestselling "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood.

Capote, directed by Bennett Miller from Dan Futterman's script (derived from Gerald Clarke's biography), recreates Capote's experiences in bringing his book to birth. (You can browse the film's press-kit online.) The movie is unusually forthright about Capote's mixed motives as he noses around Holcomb, opening the victims' closed caskets to take a look, charming the culture-loving wife of Alvin Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective in charge of the case, in order to get closer to Dewey himself, and, in particular, seducing Perry Smith, one of the killers, into telling him details that he needs for his book. Capote has something of an obsession with Smith, with whom he identifies as a social reject, and Smith responds to the attention. Once Smith gives up the goods about the night of the murder, however, Capote is through with him. Overall, the only thing of real interest to Capote in Kansas is what he senses (correctly) his book will add to his literary glory.

The movie's approach to its main character is thus coolly ironic—it keeps strict ledgers and uses blood-red ink when accounts fall short. (That the blood is never Capote's further lowers the temperature.) Though Capote thinks of himself as apart from, and above, this flawed, corrupt world he's sashaying through, he's also perfectly comfortable with the ways of the world as is. In Kansas, for instance, he proves adept at everything from well-placed sympathy to flattery to bribery of public officials. And his questionable attitudes and practices don't just involve what he does to get the Clutter story; his literary vanity and envy, and a tart wit that regularly crosses the border into spite, are pretty unsavory as well. Capote's cruelly gleeful reporter's eye for other peoples' faults is blended with a general silkiness—the claws protract through a velvet glove. This allows him to turn an overwhelming need for attention into public spectacle: there's a bitchy-hot zone around him at any social gathering as he entertains the crowd with his uniquely catty form of name-dropping. (James Baldwin and Marilyn Monroe are among the butts here.) The drawling, pampered homunculus has the makings of a monster, a self-made literary Nero who'd burn Manhattan to write an ironic chronicle of other people's reactions to the conflagration. (Of course, when he published "La Côte Basque, 1965" in Esquire in 1975, with all the barely-disguised portraits of his lady socialite friends, it turned out to be an act of self-immolation.)

Unfortunately, whatever advantage the moviemakers gain from their knowing detachment is discounted by the fact that they take for granted the greatness of In Cold Blood. Thus, no matter what they reveal about Capote, the supposed greatness of the book implicitly serves to justify his behavior. In this way a bracingly disinterested assessment of the artist's character inevitably becomes a conventional romance about the creation of his "masterpiece."

Having read some of the still-unfinished manuscript, William Shawn opines that In Cold Blood will change the way people write. If Shawn said, "write nonfiction accounts of crimes," the claim might have some merit but even then I'm not sure. (Janet Flanner's 1934 Vanity Fair article about the Papin sisters, "The Murder in Le Mans," is for me a touchstone in this area. Flanner's piece is included as a bonus on the DVD of Murderous Maids (2000), which is based on it.) If In Cold Blood is a great book, it's an extremely unusual one. No question, the prose is expertly judged; the subject matter is incapable of infecting Capote's style with the least coarseness. (The movie does not make a strong case for it, however, by showing Capote reading aloud from the book at Town Hall; the prose is better read than spoken, especially when it's spoken by someone convinced of the poetic perfection of every metaphor.) What's unusual about the book is the point of view, or, rather, the points of view.

In the movie Capote and Lee are seen laughing in Kansas over the cultural wasteland they've found themselves in. Later, Capote, still in Kansas, cracks a joke over the phone to Lee who tells him the situation doesn't strike her as funny anymore and he backpedals. The transition from amused disbelief to a more earnest connection is thus shown in the movie to be a progression over time, but that's not how the book reads. In the early sections, the descriptions of Mr. Clutter and his chipper, industrious daughter Nancy are pure poker-faced camp. Mr. Clutter is a right-wing Republican, "a die-hard community booster," a 4-H chairman. He's a generous man but an upright, teetotaling, pious citizen of the prairies, a wooden archetype somehow living. Nancy, "the town darling," Becky Thatcher in a high school production of Tom Sawyer ("Good as anything on TV," a farmer's wife exults), "champion cherry-pie maker," and inhabitant of a "girlish" bedroom, "as frothy as a ballerina's tutu," is her father's daughter—she takes off her basketball-star boyfriend's ring to put him on probation for having drunk a beer. In other words, Nancy is almost too '50s to be real. Nancy's chatter on the phone with her best friend and the excerpts from her diary (a "literally tear-stained" page notes her "first REAL quarrel with Bobby") put me in mind of the eruptive, synthetic teens in the satirical musical comedy Bye Bye, Birdie (1963). Which is a bit uncomfortable, seeing as the only reason Capote is writing about her is that she had her face blown off with a shotgun.

In sharp contrast, Capote treats the "strange," timid, apologetic Mrs. Clutter, an emaciated, neurasthenic invalid with a "helpless, homespun ethereality" who seems to haunt her own home (when she's not away at a psychiatric hospital), and the introverted son Kenyon, who practices cabinetry alone in his basement workshop, fairly tenderly. Capote says that Kenyon "could not conceive of ever wanting to waste an hour on any girl that might be spent with guns, horses, tools, machinery, even a book." He's his mother's child, "a sensitive and reticent boy," too uncoordinated to be good at sports like the other boys, and living "in a world of his own." This split in Capote's attitude between camp and empathy with the weak, the different, the inward, is what marks In Cold Blood as the work of a homosexual of the era despite a nearly total lack of thematic material. (Capote's prose here is not purple but it is lavender.) Nothing in Capote replicates this split in attitude; the closest movies have come would be the difference in how Gus Van Sant views the boys and the girls in Elephant (2003), as I pointed out in my review of it.

Then, when Capote shifts his focus to the murderers, Dick Hickock comes across "objectively" as a strutting braggart, in Dewey's terms, "a small-time chiseler who got out of his depth, empty and worthless." Hickock deals himself out of Capote's game by insisting he's "a normal." Smith on the other hand, a half-Irish, half-Cherokee drifter and dreamer with pained, stunted legs, comes across as a tormented man, a decent person from a self-destructive family who mysteriously snaps into dangerous brutality. (Smith has orphanage experience equal to anything in Light in August; in prison he's still wetting his bed, sucking his thumb, and crying in his sleep for his dad.) To Capote it's as if, of the two killers, only Smith has a soul. (In the movie Capote remarks that he feels as if he and Smith had grown up in the same house, but that Smith left by the back door while Capote left by the front.) Capote's fascination with Smith is even more palpable than his identification with Mrs. Clutter and Kenyon.

As Amy Standen's 22 January 2002 Salon article about In Cold Blood points out, Capote's talent as a reporter lay in his abilities as a listener, and, of course, he didn't have direct experience talking to the Clutters. This doesn't entirely explain the heterogeneity of the tone in the first part of the book, however. In "The Duke In His Domain," his famous 1957 New Yorker profile of Marlon Brando, Capote similarly mixes raillery and compassion when dealing with just one person with whom he did sit down for a chat. At the end of the piece, Capote nails Brando's practiced "lantern-slide" method of telling about his mother's alcoholism and decline and still manages to convey the emotionally wrenching sordidness of the facts. In this finale the division in Capote's handling of his subject comes off as quite a journalistic feat; in the much longer arc of In Cold Blood the divisions become fissures.

But even if Capote had spoken with the Clutters, that wouldn't have got him to the end of his book—Hickock and Smith's executions. Even his darkling identification with Smith can't do that. To wrap things up, Capote takes up against the death penalty and there's something arbitrary about it, though the arbitrariness may be less noticeable because his approach to the material has been so varied all along. Nothing about Capote's protest against capital punishment is memorable. The thing I remember best from this section is an exchange between two journalists: one says that the killers never stood a chance in the courtroom, and sympathizes with Smith because he's had a "rotten life," to which the other guy replies, "Many a man can match sob stories with that little bastard" (which is pretty much the basis of Capote's identification with Smith, as the movie makes explicit). Capote the listener is certainly a better reporter than he is a polemicist—he's too indirect, too insinuating to win a policy debate. I suspect that Capote's attitude toward the execution derived from the fact that he was especially sorry to see Smith die, but also because he wanted his book to have more amplitude than a "mere" account of an infamous crime.

Finally, Capote's patchworking of his material reminds me of Oscar Wilde's Salome, with John the Baptist speaking past the other characters, prophetically, as if straight out of the gospels, Herod and Herodias squabbling like a mismarried couple in a naturalistic drama, and Wilde indulging in Salome's abnormal sexuality decadently, that is, with no reference to morality. As in Salome, Capote's conflicting modes of identification with character and projection into situations distort a story that the author hasn't invented. This means, paradoxically, that although Capote's writing is highly disciplined, In Cold Blood is at the same time exquisitely self-indulgent. It's the work of an artist trying to discover his art and his audience and succeeding at the latter, which is all that's required to make the audience think he's succeeded at the former. But in the case of Capote's crime saga, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Capote doesn't function fully as an independent work; it will mean a lot more if you've read In Cold Blood and know something about the author. And though the script presents an interestingly detached portrait of its impish, narcissistic protagonist, it plays much like any biopic about a genius who "must" go too far in order to go farther than others have gone before. Capote even has two "wives" looking on in dismay as he gives in to temptation—his lover Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) and Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener). (Dunphy and Lee are the two dedicatees of In Cold Blood.) The wife of the genius is the ultimately thankless role; Keener might have given the performance she's credited with if we saw her fulfilling Nelle's intended function of smoothing the way in Kansas for the flamboyantly effeminate Capote, whose languid coquettishness can't help him because he always seems to be despising people in advance for what they will "inevitably" think of him. (His featherweight voice has a built-in sneer—it reminds you of why "sarcastic" used to be a euphemism for "homosexual.")

The movie depends almost entirely on what Philip Seymour Hoffman can do in the lead role. And then the texture of the script becomes a problem. Futterman doesn't shy away from dirty secrets but he tots them up exhaustively in such a way that they don't seem like secrets, like something interior to a human being. And while Hoffman, prey to no vanity, either physical or moral, gives an imaginative representation of every carefully worked facet, it's a stage-trained actor's "faithful" performance, in a historical-character piece with no dramatic shape independent of the biographical timeline. (The movie is this year's Kinsey.) Hoffman's Capote is exactly the characterization that is indicated by the script but no more.

Hoffman isn't colorless, as he is playing the shabby, gambling-addicted bank loan officer in Owning Mahowny (2003). He does, however, have the same self-consciousness that limits him as the gallant-teary cross-dresser in Flawless (1999). Playing that swishy survivor, he always knows where his meaty, limp-wristed hands are, and their moves are too clearly worked out as signature attributes—they flutter like a pair of iron butterflies. In Capote the self-consciousness always seems as much Hoffman's as Capote's—it puts display lighting in the showcase.

Clearly I don't subscribe to Andrew Sullivan's view of Hoffman as "the greatest actor of his generation," not in the movies, anyway. Where are the defining roles? In their range, Paul Giamatti is already ahead of him. Hoffman did give the freshest performance in the Vanessa Redgrave-Brian Dennehy version of Long Day's Journey Into Night on Broadway a few years ago (which I reviewed here). That's a major role and he was stepping into the gigantic shoes of Jason Robards. But in movies he's been more effective in supporting roles; among the cast in Anthony Minghella's yuppie-tourist's version of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), for instance, Hoffman alone had the creepiness to do honor to source-author Patricia Highsmith.

Walk the Line

The writer and director of Capote do half an original job by refusing to romanticize the man. But if they don't romanticize the man, they certainly romanticize his work, which counteracts their first instinct. This still puts them well ahead of the makers of Walk the Line, which offers a disastrously simplistic conception of Johnny Cash—the singer's entire adulthood is presented as the inevitable consequence of a few incidents and facts from his childhood (mean dad, dead brother, love of music). There's even less casualness than in Capote but the details are of a much lower grade. (Cash can't handle a fishing rod without there being a specific link to a childhood scene.)

Walk the Line is frank enough about the fact of Cash's alcoholism and drug addiction, but it adopts an unnuanced sympathy that prevents us from seeing the man straight—as an adult responsible for the messes he gets into, whether he knows it or not. June Carter, the level-headed, down-home singer Cash courts on- and offstage for a decade, sure knows it, but the movie isn't wired to her practicality. The script hints at the immaturity of Cash's fantasies about being a criminal in prison, for instance, but then presents his concert in Folsom Prison (memorialized in a 1968 album) as a heroic morale-booster for the mistreated inmates. (June sang "Jackson" with Johnny at the concert, but the movie doesn't show us her reaction when he jokingly acts out the lyrics to another song by pretending to shoot a woman with his guitar.) There's something adolescent and slack-minded—and generic—about Walk the Line's emphasis on Cash's travails, which are the same as in every other boozy-loser biopic because they haven't been fitted to a complex enough framework, either psychological or dramatic. June is what's different here, and the moviemakers never figure out how to get their narrative with her program. She ends up looking on in dismay like all the other wives of geniuses in the movies. And yet …

Joaquin Phoenix plays Cash with a molten excitement entirely missing from Hoffman's portrayal of Capote.
The difference between Hoffman's and Phoenix's performances doesn't have to do only with the difference between Capote and Cash; Capote was a turbulent enough character in his own right, God knows. Phoenix is an intelligent actor but unlike Hoffman he's a fully—mesmerizingly—instinctual one, too. When he goes at a song, he uses his jaw like a shovel as if to dig down into himself to express more than the yokel-doggerel lyrics are capable of expressing in themselves. Phoenix can't make lyric art of Cash's songs, but he can make performance art of the moment in which he sings them.

Phoenix couldn't know all that's going on in his face in certain sequences—it can be as eerily changeable as a special effect. (Hoffman always knows.) Phoenix maintains no distance from Cash; we know that the stunted boy's counterproductive rage to become a man is an interpretation, but the actor embodies it as if it were a visitation. Walk the Line is all performance, if it's anything. And it comes close to being nothing—it continually gets in the way of its star with clumsily calculated points that the audience has already absorbed. Considering Phoenix's power as an actor, however, you may be grateful for what you get. (He just keeps getting better, and I though he was already phenomenal when I wrote about him in my review of The Village last year.)

The one thing Walk the Line does absolutely right is to show how different June's approach to performing is from Johnny's—she thinks of herself as a purveyor of conventional entertainment and no more. She's not reaching for anything onstage because she knows real life is lived before and after the show. This is great for Reese Witherspoon as June because it calls for some authoritatively fast, comic shifts at the margin between backstage and onstage. The complementary excitement in Witherspoon's performance comes from seeing June's professional manner flicker on and off; the more genuine emotion she feels, the less expressive she becomes in public. And Phoenix's Johnny is constantly going at her to respond to him, onstage, offstage, no matter where they are, who's watching, or what other demands there may be on them.

Walk the Line didn't make me want to listen to Johnny Cash but to see Phoenix's next movie. (I would also like to see the complete versions of the Johnny-and-June numbers that director James Mangold cuts away from, as if we were more interested in his narrative filmmaking than in seeing the stars whack the songs home.) Capote is all super-intelligent, though partially compromised, text. Hoffman puts himself at the service of the text and that's clearly enough for a lot of people. But when I think about Capote I think about Capote himself, not Hoffman.

Note: Capote doesn't go into Smith's hair-raising description of how the murders resulted from the "frictional interplay" between him and Hickock, as told in In Cold Blood. (This omission may be a let-down to readers of the book after such a big deal is made about what Capote has to do to get the information.) This article from Court TV's Crime Library goes intriguingly further, suggesting that the murders resulted from the dynamics of a homosexual relationship between Hickock and Smith.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Movie Review

Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic: Silversmith

If anyone here in the audience has been offended by anything I might have said or done during the course of my trying to entertain you, I want you to know sincerely from the bottom of my heart that I don't give a shit.

—Redd Foxx, "Closing," The Very Best of Redd Foxx
Political correctness has turned academic, professional, and even social interactions into minefields. (This is the premise from which Philip Roth began The Human Stain.) It's an odd moment for taboos governing what we say about race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, sexuality, religion, age, etc.—there's rigid propriety about what is socially acceptable to say in public at a time when censorship is more lax than ever. (Sometimes it seems as if anything may be said, so long as you don't think it.)

For the stand-up comedian Sarah Silverman, however, politically correct minefields grow amber waves of grain just begging to be harvested. Silverman, a flirty, dark-haired, gleam-eyed young Jewish woman stands at the mike and pretends to tell brief stories about herself, her family, her relationships, her friends, but everything she says is a feint leading to punch lines containing crazily objectionable utterances, and the assumptions underlying them, about the "diverse" population of the world. Silverman, the truffle pig of "offensive" humor, exploits the audience's sense of public decorum with something pretty close to genius in this range.

Silverman's material isn't a satire of Jews, blacks, gays, et al. She doesn't pretend to be saying what nobody will say but what is true. (As you might say of Bill Cosby's 17 May 2004 remarks about the state of African-American culture.) Silverman isn't heroic, not in that respect. That is, she's out to shock us but not seriously to challenge us. Nor is her material a satire of anti-Semites, racists, homophobes, not even when the jokes boomerang because what she's said is so patently idiotic. Rather, Silverman makes these sick jokes with the opportunism of the pure comedian. The simplest definition of comedy (in its non-narrative sense) is that it's whatever makes people laugh; Silverman makes you laugh by saying the socially unacceptable solely because it's socially unacceptable. It isn't that she really thinks what she says, but merely that she says it, and though she's clearly being prankish she's relentlessly unapologetic.

The breaking of taboos in works of entertainment catalyzes an explosive reaction that a lot of us experience as laughter. People who are pious about speech codes at universities may well have a different reaction, unless they can peg Silverman as "ironic" and maybe purgative. But she's more purely after the laugh than that. When Silverman seems to be teaching us about prejudice, it's always a set-up for another outrage. (She even makes a joke about this, claiming that her style of comedy is meant to instruct to such an extent she calls it "learn-medy.") The same is true whenever she seems to be embarrassed about what has just popped out of her mouth. When you sense maidenly shame, hit the deck! because the next missile has already been launched.

The other thing that makes Silverman so funny is the evident craft that goes into her monologues. The trick is not just to say naughty things but to land the joke from an unexpected direction, even moreso than is usual with stand-up routines—Silverman's writing is highly elliptical. After a while you grasp the technique and then the pleasure is increased by anticipation. Silverman and her writers are absolutely tireless at this game; I was able to figure out the joke before she said it only once (and I still laughed). Predictability doesn't by itself kill comedy; in fact, it's part of what makes comedians iconic. Silverman's distinctive craftsmanship gives her comedy an extra dimension of semi-participatory aesthetic enjoyment.

Jesus Is Magic calls up a whole tradition of blue comedy that has long provided a polluted oasis for refugees from "positive," heartwarming, family-friendly entertainment. Like raunchy old Redd Foxx, with his "If you can't Fugg it, Sugg it"-type numbers, Silverman stirs the earth up to give the audience a whiff of what "wholesome" entertainment excludes. And like Lenny Bruce she makes lightning out of the tensions within the audience. If you laugh, the content of any individual joke can suddenly make you conscious of the race, sex, whatever, of the people sitting near you. Silverman is probably more impudent than scandalous—her mincing girlishness may be counterfeit but it keeps her from being out-and-out raw—but her show is liberating in a way that creates tension as much as it relaxes it.

In addition, she's more of an artisan of audience expectations than her forebears. (In his aggressive mode Bruce, by contrast, worked more on their sensitivities.) The action isn't only in what Silverman says—which may involve common stereotypes, crude fantasy, hypocrisy, ridiculous preconceptions, cretinous misunderstanding, tactlessness, or just nonsensical obscenity—but in the way her deceptively winsome demeanor, the sneak-attack structure of the jokes, and her expertly varied timing give added spin to the insanity. This is why, although she's breathtakingly base, she has what Howard Stern lacks—wit.

Altogether Jesus Is Magic is the best live-performance movie since Richard Pryor's Live in Concert (1979) and Bette Midler's Divine Madness (1980). Pryor's routines certainly have more dimension than Silverman's. Listening to his stories is like listening to Bessie Smith's Columbia catalogue, both works of entertainment that offer a panorama of African-American life never so frankly or briskly represented in our culture. And Midler is more of an all-round entertainer than Silverman. (Pryor is, too, for that matter—Silverman doesn't do mimicry and her pantomime is more caricatural than precise.) Jesus Is Magic cuts away from Silverman's stage act for some funny, acted-out vignettes and some musical numbers that are mildly diverting but not special. In Divine Madness Midler is a bawdy dervish determined to send you home entertained to within an inch of your life. Silverman doesn't have Midler's almost homey generosity any more than she has Pryor's scope and reach. But then neither would you expect her to be as ingratiating as Pryor is in his pairings with Gene Wilder and his subsequent concert movies or to be downright schmaltzy as Midler has gotten with her music and such vehicles as Beaches (1988) and For the Boys (1991). (Even the bag-lady routine in Divine Madness itself is bathroom-break time.)

One-man concert movies segregate performance from narrative and distil the essence of what stars can bring to theatrical works. Unlike actors playing famous writers or politicians in one-man shows, solo entertainers like Pryor, Midler, and Silverman don't even have a familiar public figure to guide or steady them. They have to bring everything out of themselves, to create, in fact, the character who is up there talking, joking, and singing, the character who "is" the famous performer who has packed the house and yet who still must be recreated consistently from night to night. In Jesus Is Magic, the stage is the forge in which the character "Sarah Silverman" is fashioned with the low-down inspiration of a woman who knows how to work dirt as if it were a precious metal. Silverman is at a peak right now and success hasn't seduced her into moderating her act much at all. In Jesus Is Magic that act comes across as a limited but decided form of perfection.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.